Hawaii Island’s only television station recently opened two new studios and started live broadcasting while continuing to make amateur TV producers out of average people.

“Now we’re a full-fledged community resource,” said Micah Alameda, Na Leo TV’s marketing manager.

Na Leo TV, which went on air in 1995 as a companion to other island’s public, educational and government stations like Oahu’s Olelo, didn’t always enjoy that status, however. A lack of live programming, very limited facilities and sporadic local content of varying quality hindered viewership for years.

“People didn’t know that we’re a TV station,” said Alameda, who admits he wasn’t watching it either.

Na Leo TV Production Manager Matthew Cordero works behind the scenes on the station’s live broadcast of the Big Island Interscholastic Federation’s Girls High School Basketball Championships from Hilo.

Na Leo TV

Things started changing three years ago with the arrival of new leadership that has greatly expanded Na Leo TV’s presence and encouraged more members of the public to produce their own content.

“It may seem more relevant now,” Alameda said of Channels 53-55, “because we’ve really upped the ante recently.”

Last October, Na Leo TV paid $2 million for a 20,000-square-foot Kailua-Kona building that houses its West Hawaii studio and has extra space the station leases to a private studio and other tenants, said Stacy Higa, Na Leo TV president and CEO.

“It came about by making people understand we had the resources. We had the ability to be a higher (valued) local TV station,” Higa said of the growth. “We’re trying to … create that niche that I think is missing when it comes to localized television.”

A $1.2 million, 5,000-square-foot expansion of its Hilo location was finished in December and features a 65-seat studio, Higa said.

“It’s limitless,” Alameda said of the second Hilo studio that Na Leo TV will use to broadcast live political debates, community forums and other events.

Station funding comes from a portion of the monthly franchise fees charged to Big Island cable TV subscribers. Hawaii law requires each cable TV company to pay 5 percent of its annual gross income – the maximum allowed under federal law – to the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs’ Cable Television Division. Na Leo TV receives 60 percent of what local provider Spectrum pays to the DCCA, according to Hawaii law.

Stacy Higa, Na Leo TV president and CEO, in his expanded Hilo office.

Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

That equals slightly more than $1 million a year, said William Nhieu, the DCCA’s communications officer. Na Leo TV also gets $125,000 annually in “capital payments” to cover construction loans and other large expenses, he said.

Since new management took over in 2015, Na Leo TV’s staff has grown from six to 17, including a three-person Kona team helping meet leeward-side demand, Alameda said.

A custom production truck, very similar to those Oahu news stations use, is being designed and should be ready for use in May, he said.

“So we just pull up to locations off the grid and just go live,” he said of the enhanced capability a production truck will provide.

Na Leo TV also is looking to establish rural sites and partner with public schools to further expand its programming, Alameda said.

“This is public-access TV, so we really want the island to feel they have access to their own TV station.”

The studios, editing rooms, cameras – along with training on how to use it all – is available at no cost to Big Islanders (visitors get the same access with a resident sponsor) who desire a television platform. Use does require certification, which costs $100 per person and can be completed online in a few weeks, Alameda said.

“I wouldn’t have thought a public access program would have all this advanced stuff. I was pretty impressed,” said Jarrett Kodani, a University of Hawaii Manoa researcher who recently obtained certification online and became a Na Leo TV external producer.

Kodani said he’s now editing his first broadcast, which is a meeting members of Hilo’s Keaukaha community held with government leaders to address issues in their neighborhood.

His next project will be an educational series teaching viewers how to use computer programming to solve engineering and science problems.

“I would definitely recommend others doing it,” Kodani said, adding he hopes more people will utilize Nā Leo TV’s services.

Public content accounted for nearly 17,000 of the 26,000 hours of total programming Na Leo TV delivered last year, said Data Manager Kara Nelson, another of the station’s young leaders. That included 250 hours of live broadcasts, she said.

Live content ranged from the Big Island high school athletic championships to the 44-day contested case hearing regarding proposed construction of a new telescope atop Maunakea, Alameda said.

“We want to be everywhere. We want to showcase the talent on this island,” he said.

Na Leo is achieving that goal, Audrey Wilson said.

“This is wonderful because they go out into the community and do a lot of activities,” said Wilson, a local culinary personality who writes a longstanding food column for the local newspaper.

On a recent morning, Wilson was at Na Leo TV’s Hilo studios to film her latest episode for which she was joined by Chef Dean Shigeoka of AJ and Sons Catering. They produced a three-dish meal featuring healthy recipes from Dr. Dean Ornish.

“It’s been really positive,” Wilson said of the different medium. “People come up and say, ‘I saw you on TV.’ It’s been a great experience for me.”

Local culinary personality Audrey Wilson, center, is shown taping her monthly cooking show. Joining her are Elena Cabatu, director of marketing for Hilo Medical Center, and Chef Dean Shigeoka of AJ and Sons Catering.

Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

Wilson is the first to utilize another new service that allows people to have Na Leo’s staff produce their content in exchange for helping underwrite that personnel expense, Alameda said.

The cost is $200 per 30-minute broadcast, he said, noting Hilo Medical Center will soon be using it to tape a four-part series on healthy lifestyle choices.

“We’re trying to make it as convenient as possible to watch the programs that are important to you,” Alameda said.

The 3,000-member Alliance for Community Media Western States Region, which includes California and five other states, has taken notice. It recently honored Na Leo TV with the 2018 award for excellence in local cable programming for a show about a woman who turned tragedy caused by her child’s passing into a way to help others by knitting baby hats for new mothers and their keiki.

Higa expects Na Leo TV to continue expanding into other new areas such as internet and radio broadcasts as it educates the public how to use media to deliver messaging.

“Our goal down the road is to evolve into a full-fledged media center,” he said.

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